By Laura McKillip Wood
Rebecca sits on a blanket in the yard that surrounds her home, a one-room grass hut. Her four children play around her, along with her sister’s five children. Rebecca is the sole support for her children, her mother, her sister, and her nieces and nephews. Rebecca’s husband joined the military in South Sudan, their home country, years ago. He left the family to fight in a war there and has not returned. Eventually, she and her family fled from their homeland to Adjumani, a community of refugees in Uganda.
Life has been difficult for Rebecca and her children, but through a partnership between three different organizations and her church community—a project called “BeFriend”—she has opportunity to provide an education for her children and begin to support her family in a way that will continue to improve their lives and the life of their community.
A Multifaceted Partnership
For many years, Lifeline Christian Mission has ministered to impoverished communities. A key aspect of this has been providing opportunities for American churches to reach out to those in other nations. Lifeline offers a wide variety of ministry opportunities, including meal-packing events for American churches (the food is sent to communities in crisis in developing countries), and working with youth in places like Haiti, Honduras, and Guatemala. Lifeline also organizes and leads short-term trips for churches who want their members to experience cross-cultural ministry.
About a year and a half ago, though, Lifeline incorporated a new approach to ministry by partnering with an African-based organization, incorporating American church support to an even greater degree, and seeking to build up the churches in the countries where they are working so they eventually are less reliant on U.S. churches and organizations.
Lifeline teamed up with Life in Abundance, an African-founded, faith-based community development organization that uses grants and donations to implement programs that help communities in impoverished areas. As part of that partnership, they decided to engage American churches in their work in a manner that would build and strengthen relationships with churches in developing countries. This plan involved training these local churches to be more effective and sustainable, and not dependent on U.S. churches or organizations.
“This empowers the local church to effectively reach their own communities in a sustainable way,” said Sheri Sutton of Lifeline. The new approach is called “BeFriend” because the hope is to build relationships between churches in developing communities and churches in America.
As the Lifeline—Life in Abundance partnership was starting, leaders at the Crestwood Campus of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, sought to better engage their members in cross-cultural ministry. Through Lifeline, SECC–Crestwood organized an event to package more than 1 million meals (combining rice, dried beans, and other nutritious, nonperishable foods) to send to the people in Uganda.
But the church’s leaders wanted to teach their members more about cross-cultural ministry and also open their hearts to the ways God was working in other parts of the world by more deeply engaging them in the lives of people living in developing countries. A partnership developed that includes SECC-Crestwood, Lifeline, Life in Abundance, and Rebecca’s church in Adjumani, Uganda, where a large number of refugees live. These refugees fled political and economic crises in their own countries and are in need of food, shelter, and the basics of life.
Meeting Needs with Holistic Ministry
Because of their physical needs, people in Adjumani are often unable to think much about spiritual needs. When people are preoccupied with survival, they do not have the capacity to think about higher-level needs like quality of life and emotional and spiritual health. Because of this, BeFriend began by providing those nonperishable meals to the church in Adjumani. The church used these meals to reach out to their community. BeFriend is a three-year program that aims to enable people in Adjumani to start new businesses and learn how to organize and strengthen their community. Rather than creating or increasing dependence on American Christians, the program will set up the Adjumani church to support themselves and build the economic and spiritual lives of the people.
After the initial meal-packing event, families and individuals in the SECC community committed to giving $33 per month for three years. This money goes to empowering the church in Adjumani to lead the community and equips them to set up revolving loans to help people start their own businesses.
“These churches can meet needs in a holistic approach to ministry and gospel living,” Sutton said.
Not only that, but members of Southeast visit the Adjumani community and meet the people with whom they have partnered, enabling them to befriend one another and share their lives. Although Southeast is a large church, the program is actually implemented and sponsored by a single campus of the larger church. It is also being replicated now with another church in Kansas City and can be scaled to work with churches of any size.
Empowering Adjumani People
An important element of this ministry is the empowering nature of it. BeFriend does not pretend to know how best to use the donated funds. Instead, they work with the Adjumani church leaders, who know their people and their culture. The people are given the freedom to use the funds the best way possible. Also, all of the parties involved know that this is a short-term project.
After three years, the American involvement in the project ends. Because of that, the leaders focus on the best ways to empower people and teach them long-term, sustainable ways to support themselves without depending on American Christians.
Individuals who participate in the life of the church and the programs developed become agents of change in their communities. They become involved in discipleship groups, learn how to start and maintain small businesses, and participate in self-help groups that teach things like accounting, money management, business skills, and social skills. The church has set up a savings and credit association to give support to the small businesses the people start.
The ministry attempts to help people holistically by focusing on the financial, physical, spiritual, and emotional components of life. Additionally, BeFriend provides funds to educate 200 vulnerable children in the community. Investing in the next generation of community leaders and church members ensures the project has a future. This practical help opens the door for conversations about Jesus, and as many as 280 households have received visits and prayers from Christians in the church.
“It’s a beautiful partnership where we can all do what we do best,” Sutton said. “The model has proven to work well, and all parties involved work to restore dignity and empower a community to become self-sustaining.”
For Rebecca, that means seeing that her children get a solid education and learn how to become productive and healthy members of their community. It means feeling the support of a loving community to help ease the burden of caring for her extended family.
For the American church friends, it means meeting fellow believers from the other side of the world and seeing how God is moving in the lives of the people there.
“We called the ministry ‘BeFriend’ because it’s a two-way relationship,” Sutton said. “It’s not just us going there and telling them what to do.” When Americans visit, the Adjumani leaders teach them about their work. “They’re the experts,” she said.
BeFriend is a team approach to problems of poverty and social unrest . . . the body of Christ working together!
If you’re interested in learning more about this ministry, check out lifeline.org/BeFriend.
Laura McKillip Wood, former missionary to Ukraine, now lives in Papillion, Nebraska. She serves as an on-call chaplain at Children’s Hospital and Medical Center in Omaha. She and her husband, Andrew, have three teenagers.